Whenever concepts for commercial 3D printed accessories are discussed, 3D printed, custom-made and sensor-packed wearables are often immediately brought up. Their development, however, is currently being hampered by existing 3D printing techniques – which are everything but suited to 3D print materials onto flexible surfaces. All that might change, however, as a team of NASA researchers has just revealed that they have pioneered a new plasma-based 3D printing technology that is capable of 3D printing nanomaterials onto existing structures – including 3D objects and flexible surfaces, such as paper and cloth.
This new technique has been developed by research teams from the NASA Ames Research Center and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and is described in the latest edition of Applied Physics Letters (AIP Publishing), in an article entitled Plasma jet printing for flexible substrates. The technique, as the article explains, would make it a lot easier and more affordable to build 3D printed wearable sensors, flexible memory devices, batteries, and integrated circuits – opening the way for wide range of innovations, from smart clothing and medical sensors to the full integration of our surroundings with the “Internet of Things”.
Of course, nanomaterial deposition is already possible, for instance with inkjet prints that deposit layers of nanoparticles or nanotubes. These, however, are quite limited and the printers cannot 3D print onto textiles or other flexible materials, and 3D shapes are problematic. What’s more, all materials have to be inks – which severely limits your options. Some successes have also been had using aerosol printing techniques, but this invariably requires the materials to be heated to several hundreds of degrees – making it impossible to 3D print onto existing materials, like cloth, that cannot take the heat.